Article by ISBE Member Dr Cara Molyneux
This article outlines recent debates in the UK on the requirement to enhance all employees’ rights to request Flexible Working by making it the default position. I consider if, and how, this change could be beneficial for disabled people when competing against non-disabled people for good quality jobs.
A growing evidence base shows it is employer inflexibility that often places unnecessary restrictions on disabled people’s experience of finding, keeping and progressing in work (Olsen Citation2022; Molyneux Citation2021). Consequently, employer inflexibility creates and sustains disability by placing additional barriers in the way of disabled people’s recruitment, job retention, and career progression. Yet, UK Government policy to date has tended to ignore demand-side barriers, preferring instead to encourage (through various harmful mechanisms) disabled people to become job ready. Moving disabled people out of economic inactivity and unemployment into poorly designed part-time, low-wage, precarious jobs has dominated social security restructuring. This has discursively and structurally positioned disabled people as less productive, economically burdensome and therefore strategically placed on the side-lines of the labour market as part of the reserve army of labour (Grover and Piggott Citation2005).
Why employer inflexibility matters to disabled people
Whilst some disabled people may need specific aids, adaptions, or equipment in order to facilitate their ability to work, the vast majority only require changes in the way in which work is organised. In the same way that it offers working parents the opportunity to balance family life with work, flexible working can offer disabled people a way to accommodate requirements arising from their impairment. However, a common complaint made by disabled people is a lack of employer flexibility in terms of where, when, and how work can be performed. Despite disabled workers having a legal right to flexible working as a reasonable adjustment under the provision of the CitationEquality Act (2010), employers often refuse. Therefore, finding solutions to change employers’ fondness for one-sided flexibility is critically important to ensure that low-quality, low-wage, and part-time jobs are not the only option available to disabled people.
My PhD study involving interviews with disabled people who work in small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) in the UK found that inflexible employer recruitment, retention and progression practices are the primary cause of experiencing disability at work (Molyneux Citation2021). However, on the whole participants were largely complementary about their experience of obtaining informal agreement from their SME employer to make work feel enabling rather than disabling. Often, this has been a reciprocal type of arrangement whereby employees could take time-out or work remotely in return for taking on additional work at times to suit business requirements. Despite a lack of resources and low levels of understanding of schemes such as Access to Work and Disability Confident, SME employers were able to respond to individual employee requests quickly and without the need for bureaucratic assessment of need or medical evidence of impairment. This was viewed as good practice by disabled people because it reduced the disclosure dilemma (Molyneux Citation2021) attached to talking about impairment effects (Thomas Citation1999, Citation2007).
Disabling barriers include poor employer attitudes that act to preserve or challenge what constitutes an ‘ideal worker’ and an ableist ‘one best way’ of working (Scholz and Ingold Citation2020). Also, when presented with a choice between identically qualified candidates, one disabled and the other not, employers can display a reluctance to hire a person with a visible or declared impairment. The unavailability of suitably individually personalised flexible job opportunities are perhaps the easiest to provide and yet the most difficult to get. That is because the degree to which workers are more or less able to manage their own time and work schedules is often dependent upon job status and the attitudes of line managers.
Forms of flexibility that disabled people may find helpful can include part-time working, job sharing, working from home, flexible hours, and annualised hours. Some disabled workers need flexibility to accommodate time off at short notice because of a need not to work on ‘bad days’ and at other times to accommodate medical appointments, whose timing can be outside their control. For people with progressive illnesses who may take long periods of absence from work, they need flexibility to return to work gradually to help with adjusting back to work routines. For people with fluctuating and unpredictable impairments and chronic health conditions the chance to take annual leave strategically or having the chance to take unpaid leave to cover longer periods to manage ‘flare ups’ are viewed as good employer practices (Holland and Clayton Citation2020). Flexibility in the way that job roles are defined and adapted is also seen as important for people who acquire an impairment during their working career. However, employers are not very good at thinking flexibly about redistributing certain tasks as a form of reasonable adjustment, meaning that too often the employee is forced to leave their job.
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